‘Legion’ a surprisingly conventional take on the kaleidoscopic world of David Haller
By Don Alsafi. In January 2017 FX premiered Legion, based on a character from the X-Men line of comics with a variety of superpowers – as well as schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. It was immediately hailed as one of the most impressive comic book adaptations on television, as well as a startling depiction of mental illness (albeit a fantastical one). Strangely enough, Marvel Comics seemed to take little interest in this mass-media presentation of one of their most unique properties. As a result, when captivated viewers flocked to comic shops to read up on this amazing new character they’d encountered, they were disappointed to find not a single collection of his stories was in print.
Well, never let it be said that Marvel doesn’t learn from its mistakes! The TV show’s second season debuts in April, and the publisher has several graphic novels in the pipeline, including a collection reprinting the character’s first appearance just released last week, with no less than four more slated to come out between now and May. What’s more, this week sees the start of a new five-issue miniseries, checking in with Legion’s current doings in the Marvel Universe for the first time in years.
Can this new story dazzle its audience the same way Legion’s television debut did a year ago?
Written by Peter Milligan.
Illustrated by Wilfredo Torres.
Colors by Dan Brown.
Letters by VC’s Travis Lanham.
The origin of madness. Legion is the codename for one David Haller, the son of Professor Charles Xavier, leader and founder of the X-Men. Created by writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz, the character first debuted in 1985, two years into the very first X-Men spinoff title, The New Mutants. Claremont’s X-Men had resonated with readers over the previous decade and catapulted the book to sales heights it had never quite seen in its early years, and thus he’d been the only real choice when launching a new X-title. Sienkiewicz’s art style, by contrast, had begun with solid-but-unremarkable superhero work on titles like The Fantastic Four, but during his tenure on Moon Knight he gradually evolved toward the experimental and abstract, leaning toward nontraditional storytelling and consistently arresting visuals. (Notably, Moon Knight is another Marvel character who struggles with multiple personalities.)
This newest series is the collaboration of Peter Milligan and Wilfredo Torres. Milligan is a British writer who has been working in comics since the 1980s, but whose most notable work might be 2002’s deliriously off-kilter X-Statix, a book that was less the usual depiction of a heroic mutant team, and more a savagely clever satire of celebrity media and the superhero genre itself. (He’s also currently working on Kid Lobotomy for Black Crown, a book with shades of Haller.) Torres, on the other hand, is a newer artist from the past decade, initially tackling pulp heroes The Shadow and Doc Savage, before more recently landing gigs on Moon Knight, Black Panther, and Jupiter’s Circle.
David is oddly lucid. Legion #1 opens with the title character running through the countryside, mentally struggling against a malevolent and powerful personality apparently named Lord Trauma. As he fights to regain his own sense of self, the weather around him storms and roils with devastating power and destruction – because David’s curse is that every one of his multiple personalities manifests its own superpower, often as chaotic and out of control as his own mind. Eventually he’s able to reassert control and make his way to New York, intent on seeking out the help of a celebrity psychologist.
Strangely enough, for a new miniseries starring one of the more conceptually unusual characters in Marvel’s stable, the comic itself is oddly straightforward and unassuming. There’s nothing bad or off-putting about the story being told… but at the same time, neither is it exceptional. Milligan’s script introduces us to the lead character well enough and effectively sets him on his path, but no plot point or development ever really catches the reader by surprise. More damningly, Haller’s struggles with mental illness never feel genuine; aside from the times when he’s actively fighting against Lord Trauma, he mostly comes across as unbothered and almost seems like he’s taking the tortures of his fractured mind in stride. As a depiction of a person who ostensibly can’t trust his own mind, it feels inauthentic.
The comic’s weirdly perfunctory manner can also be seen in the visuals, if somewhat less. It’s perhaps unfair to compare Torres’s portrayal of Legion to Sienkiewicz’s highly original design, which was disturbingly wild and angry and confused and frightening. The art here never approaches that – but it also never tries to. In fact, a closer look reveals that Torres has a confident and assured style, with solid storytelling and effective character expressiveness. If anything, the problem might be that his visual style is too solid for such an unpredictable and ungrounded character, and he was just – through no fault of his own – artistically miscast. (Colorist Dan Brown’s reliance on pastel hues – the family of colors usually associated with feelings of tranquility and calmness – further heightens this visual mismatch.)
Surprisingly conventional. Every month, there are a number of comics which fail basic levels of competency and comprehensibility, and Legion #1 is by no means an example of that. Yet, at the same time, by the close of this first chapter we’ve also seen nothing that’s unique, or shocking, or which moves us. Last year’s debut issue of Nick Fury astonished readers with perpetually creative page layouts and design choices; while the more recent Runaways #1 was immediately gripping because the story showed us from the very first scene who these characters were, what was critically at stake, and how terrified they were at the possibility of losing it. Legion #1 is undeniably a competent comic book, but it’s also one that never rises past that level, or feels like a story its creators were passionate to tell.
By contrast, FX’s Legion wowed its viewers by showing them something they had never seen before, with inventive visuals, intriguing mysteries, and a character whose mental instability could lead its audience to question whether or not they could actually believe in the truth of what they were seeing: schizophrenia as unreliable narrator. By all accounts, the TV show is the rare work that strove to do something daring and new – and succeeded. Unfortunately, this newest comic depiction of the character feels surprisingly unexceptional and safe.
The irony is that “safe and unassuming” is probably the one thing the troubled David Haller would most want out of life. But in the world of drama (whether on television, or in the comic pages), stories thrive at the crossroads of passion and terror. And if they don’t have that – then what are we here for?
7 out of 10